With the recent events in Ferguson Missouri and other areas, the question is being raised whether bystanders can film police officers while they are doing their jobs, and to what extent police officers can prevent filming or even confiscate cell phones or erase videos.
The Law of Taping Officers
For a long time, some police used wiretapping laws to claim that they couldn't be taped. These are laws that generally prohibit recording or filming someone without their knowledge or permission. But that is no longer the accepted law.
Today, any court deciding the question has determined that it is a recognized first amendment right to film the police. In fact, the NYPD recently reminded its officers by memo that filming by the public was legal. But that doesn't make the right to tape absolute.
Any taping which obstructs with an officer's ability to do their job won't be upheld as a first amendment right. Shove your phone in the officer's face as he's arresting someone, and you're likely interfering with the officer's ability to do the job. And of course, in the heat of a fray, if you reach into your pocket to get a small black handheld object, you may know it's your phone - but the officer may well think it's a weapon.
Officers May Still Wrongfully Deter You From Taping Them
Many police departments have been slow to get the message. Reporters from the Huffington Post and Washington Post (one who was a respected Black Journalist of the Year Winner) were recently arrested for filming police activities. The charges were later dropped. And while police may still use force if you resist them, seizing your phones or deleting videos can still lead to lawsuits against the police. Such was the case with a 37-year-old Austin, TX man arrested after filming an arrest, who later founded an organization encouraging people to videotape police.
Although no federal court has said that the police can't be filmed, many federal circuits simply haven't addressed the issue, leaving it up in the air in some regions of the country. Although it's likely that if tested, the right to record would be upheld nationwide, if there is a dispute and you end up in court, it would be up to a jury to decide if you're filming disrupted the officers enough to prevent them from doing their jobs.
The criminal defense attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC have extensive experience with the rights of criminal defendants. If you or someone you know has been charged with a crime in Maryland, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today.